Presiding over the push for improvement
Last month, Roy Ashley, head of mathematics at Wootton Upper School in Bedfordshire, became this year's president of the Mathematical Association. He is not the first MA president to have taught in a comprehensive school, but he is the first to have chosen to remain in the same post for 20 years, apart from a brief spell as acting deputy head. It gives him, he says, "a different perspective to have actually seen the impact and long-term effects of changes in mathematics education".
His appointment may be a reflection of changes within the association. He says: "With a membership across the whole spectrum of maths education, and a long tradition of respect for everybody's point of view, the MA has been a place for discussion rather than policy making. But the association has already changed its structures quite radically and we are now ready to look into the future with new aims and new ambitions. Certainly there is a feeling now of wanting to be more up front and actually to speak about mathematics education as we see it."
Primary sector membership is rising; a working party has been set up with the Association of Teachers of Mathematics to try to make membership more available to primary schools. The MA has also recently taken over SYMS, the Society of Young Mathematicians founded by two of its members, and is attracting a growing number of young people to master classes and discussion groups.
Roy Ashley is probably the first president to have been educated at a secondary modern school, mainly as a result of being born in the 1947 birthrate "bulge" that, 11 years later, caught education authorities unprepared to cope with the demand for grammar school places. However, his headmaster, whom he acknowledges as a most important influence, "spotted some talent" and nurtured it. As the first student from that school to become an undergraduate he went on to Royal Holloway College, following that with a post-graduate year at Southampton before taking up a teaching post in a Catholic comprehensive school in Bristol.
A member of the MA since he started teaching, his real involvement began when he was invited to give a teacher's point of view to the group convened to respond to the Cockcroft enquiry. Later, he became an executive member of the association's Teaching Committee, writing reports and materials on all aspects of teaching. When a handbook on managing a mathematics department was suggested, he says: "I kept looking the other way," but eventually he chaired the group that produced the publication and admits: "It was nice to have a book with one's name upon it."
Deeply committed to his profession and the status of mathematics, the question he put at the time of Cockcroft regarding the marked disparity between the percentage of pupils achieving English O-level and those achieving it in mathematics, remains unanswered today.
"It's a serious issue. You cannot explain the discrepancy between the number of students getting Grade C or above in English and the much lower percentage gaining the same grades in maths in terms of the quality of teaching or anything else," he says. "It is simply a different standard. The implication is that large numbers of students get positive reinforcement about being English scholars and many fewer get the same reinforcement about maths. So there is a knock-on effect in the reduced number doing maths at A-level which is now very sharp, and this feeds through to university level. Maybe maths is in some sense a harder subject to study, perhaps the learning curve is steeper, but whether or not it would be perceived as a lowering of standards, attainment levels should be set according to what children can achieve."
He would like to see, by the year 2000, a new national level organised so that, in percentage terms, all subjects are assessed at the same standard. From that baseline year-by-year adjustment could be made and, from a fair and open basis, GCSE levels could be raised.
"There are things of very serious concern in education. Enormous unhappiness surrounded the introduction of the national curriculum when professional opinion was excluded and pushed aside. The situation is rapidly improving, but I am not convinced that the Government has realised it was a wrong decision to centralise so much. Most of the improvements we have seen have been a return to pragmatism."
Roy Ashley stresses that he is expressing personal views. However, as he points out, the MA exists for the improvement of mathematics teaching. As president, he is allowed to speak on behalf of the association and intends to make use of the privilege, although he thinks a few feathers may be ruffled.